Cool capital

“Buildings don’t create the culture or the space,” David Caffrey, the Molonglo Group’s cultural coordinator, said last week.

“They define the space – but it’s up to the community to decide how it will use the space.”

And he would know. David has been responsible for building an arts and community program within the internationally-acclaimed NewActon precinct. The thriving live music scene, curated art collection and the fabulous 'Art, Not Apart' festival are all the result of his brilliance.

Speaking to a 150-strong audience at a Property Council event last week, in which we explored how Canberra can become a ‘cool capital’, David said NewActon has never tried to be cool. Instead, “we’ve focused on our passions – like good architecture, culture and sustainability.” 

Nevertheless, NewActon is achingly cool. So, how do we create more places like it?

Brett Smith is the development manager for Hindmarsh Group. He thinks we need to focus our efforts on our city centre because “trying to grow five town centres is totally unsustainable for a population of 380,000 people. We need to start thinking more centrically.”

Certainly, our city centre is in need of some TLC. With a 14.7 per cent office vacancy rate and 15.9 per cent street level retail vacancy rate, it’s no wonder Civic is known as the “dead zone.” 

Architect Nathan Judd recently worked on Braddon’s Ori building. He agrees that “Civic is in the doldrums” and points out that so is housing affordability. “We could do a lot worse than deciding to build affordable micro units,” Nathan says.

Alistair McCallum is another architect, and has worked on many interesting projects around Canberra, including the Juliana House project in Woden, which has reimagined an abandoned public service office as the Abode hotel. He believes one of the solutions for a cooler Canberra is to encourage more building owners to repurpose their tired office buildings into new residential accommodation – student digs, funky apartments, boutique hotels and retirement living towers. “There are so many ways to create new uses for these buildings – but we need to get clever,” Alistair says.

The Property Council in partnership with Canberra CBD Limited has developed a discussion paper, Transforming Canberra’s City Centre, that draws upon ideas and policies that helped turn Melbourne from drab to delightful. The secret isn’t so much about being clever as it is being collaborative. Through a partnership between government, industry and the community, the residential population of Melbourne’s CBD grew by 3,000 per cent over a decade.

Nathan also wants investment in new attractions that bring life and liveliness to our city centre – like a Saturday bazaar that replicates the Salamanca Markets in Hobart or exciting playgrounds for children to frolic. “The piazza is sitting there and waiting – and revitalising it will bring more people into the city,” Nathan says.

David Caffrey says we need “incubation, experiment and places where it doesn’t cost a lot to fail”. Pointing to New York, which is experiencing an exodus of creative types who can’t afford the astronomical rents, David says “Even Moby has said he needs to leave ‘because I need to fail sometimes’.”

Lonsdale Street Traders in Braddon was one such opportunity that gave creative people the chance to fail. When building height restrictions were relaxed, it was a developer who created Lonsdale Street Traders as a business incubator while his development application was being processed. The ‘Traders’ gave these businesses a chance to establish a brand and test the market – with many now the owners of flourishing businesses in larger premises along Lonsdale Street.

Certainly, we need more places in Canberra where people can be adventurous, can take risks, and can dare to dream. As David Caffrey says, “The way we will get a ‘place’ rather than a ‘space’ will be how people connect with the space.”

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia